Maharishi Vedic City: Inside the compound with Rekha Basu

Des Moines Register/March 22, 2014

By Rekha Basu

The first time most of us learned hundreds of Hindu Indian priests have been living in Iowa for seven years to advance world peace was after up to 80 of them shook, vandalized and threw rocks at a sheriff’s truck. The media called the March 11 incident a riot. The sheriff calls it a “flash mob.” Some might call it the meaning of irony.

The American devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Fairfield, who brought the priests here for stints of two to three years, call the incident an unprecedented blip. A letter writer to this newspaper called them “uncivilized Third World miscreants,” and some people who have parted ways with the meditators associated with the Maharishi University of Management call the Indian priests victims of human trafficking.

Whatever you call what happened, it was an unfortunate introduction to the community of 350 Indian “pandits” and their purpose here.

Curious about what could have provoked purveyors of peace to such disruptive measures, I spent a couple of days last week in Fairfield and nearby Maharishi Vedic City, the municipality where the pandits live — in a large, fenced-in compound out of view. I toured it, talked to leaders of the program, members of the Fairfield community and local, state and federal officials.

Meditation has been practiced by Indian ascetics for centuries, but about 50 years ago, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi coined and popularized transcendental meditation with the help of pop culture icons like the Beatles. In Fairfield, followers created the Maharishi University of Management in 1973 to infuse TM principles into a “consciousness-based education.” The degrees may be in business management, computer science or other areas, but everyone including students, faculty and staff, meditates.

Detractors may dismiss the TM movement as ineffectual or cultish, but my own view as a non-meditator is that if it gives people a way to feel centered without therapy or substances, it can’t hurt. And I’d rather everyone be taught peace and respect for the environment than war and plunder. But Maharishi went further, with the premise that peace could be achieved if the square root of 1 percent of a population practices advanced meditation techniques. So began the Global Country of World Peace, a nonprofit with chapters around the world, and its Pandit Project in Iowa.

“Maharishi saw that America plays a leading part in the fate of people around the world, so we should bring large groups of pandits to America to make sure America stays on the track of world peace,” said Bill Goldstein, dean of Global Country and the legal counsel for the Fairfield university. He launched the program with donated funds — he didn’t reveal the budget — hoping to bring in as many as 1,200 priests for 30-month stays.

The priests are drawn from Maharishi schools and advanced training facilities around India. Some started training as young as age 5. They are here on R-1 visas, issued to religious people. But their ranks have thinned in recent years because of financial limitations, according to Goldstein.

A disaffected former Fairfield TM-er, Gina Catena, who now lives in California, suggests the pandits are being used primarily as a fundraising tool, under threats of global calamity and warfare. In her “TM-Free Blog,” she wrote, “This dream is an eternal carrot-on-a-stick, never to be achieved. After all, the Movement would lose credibility with its followers if 2,000 pandits meditate twice daily, and the world inevitably continues with political travails, natural disasters, environmental carcinogens and economic vicissitudes.”

That part is between the program and its donors. The part that should concern the rest of us is how the pandits live. There is an obvious disconnect between the reverence in which holy men bringing world peace ought to be held, and the way they are actually managed, housed, paid and confined. They live in barracks-style trailers of two, eight and 10-bedrooms apiece, two or more to a room, inside a guarded, fenced-in compound they are supposed to only leave escorted.

They get room and meals plus a mere $200 a month, $150 of which is deposited in Indian bank accounts for their families. Administrators say that was decided by program heads in India. Minimum-wage laws do not apply to people “who serve pursuant to their religious obligations” and are not considered employees, said Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro, citing the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Immigration law also doesn’t address wages for R-1 visa holders.

The priests have placed makeshift barriers from the cold or sun over their shadeless windows. They have a recreation space, prayer centers and a courtyard where they play cricket. They have no access to the Internet or cellphone communications (they buy prepaid calling cards to phone home) and their TV viewing choices are limited to Indian news programs via satellite in a common area.

They eat Indian vegetarian meals (prepared by eight cooks brought over from India) that are served in a central dining area. Their chapati bread is prepared in mass by a machine that cost $50,000 to import from India. They play cricket in the compound courtyard and decorate their homes with religious Hindu shrines. They celebrate only Indian holidays, including one last week called Holi.

An Indian elder, Bhupendra Dave — called “Uncle-ji,” by the pandits — also trained as a pandit. He handles much of their management and speaks their languages. Goldstein and John Revolinski, the program administrator, say the restrictions are to keep the men pure and prevent outside influences from seeping in.

“They’ve chosen the cloistered lifestyle. The inner freedom they get from the experience is more significant,” said Goldstein.

But if they’ve chosen it, why does it have to be enforced on them? And how realistic or healthy is it to transplant a population from one country to another, yet insulate them from all its influences? A former security guard at the pandit compound, who asked not to be named, put it this way, “Bringing people from a Third World country and isolating them — that’s not the American way.”

Calling them “really sweet guys,” he said, “These are regular human beings told they’re a god on Earth, and they have to control their passions, ego and temperament.” Though the pandits were not supposed to have contact with guards, he said, some would try to pay him to get them alcohol and tobacco. He suggests the real reason they are segregated from the outside is that people “would find out they’re just regular people.”

“It’s not quite fair for us to judge and project our values on the lifestyles they should have,” said Goldstein. “The facility is self sufficient.” But if they were truly contented, why would more than 160 of them, by Goldstein’s admission, have left and gone AWOL? And why would one of them tell a newspaper reporter he thought they should get more money?

Goldstein’s response: “Some individuals out there may be filling them with these ideas, ‘Come here and we can make you rich,’ by paying them under the table.”

But how would such people communicate with the pandits, who can’t receive calls or emails or visitors? “Maybe they go for a walk,” he said, then suggested maybe there is no prior communication, but such people find the pandits when they flee into Chicago instead of catching their return flights to India. “Increasingly, we’re seeing them coming back, so maybe this is coming to an end,” Goldstein said. “Every week or two, a bunch come back.” He said they are then sent back to India.

That still doesn’t explain the apparent disaffection. Goldstein said this didn’t used to happen in the first six years. He pointed out that half of those who have come once opt to return for a new two- to three-year term. “In the past, some would just walk off campus,” he said. “Now they are saying they need to go home because, ‘My mommy had a heart attack.’ ”

Goldstein tells immigration officials when the men go missing that they are not authorized to work other jobs. But Shawn Neudauer of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in this region, said if the men are breaking the terms of their visas, that’s an issue for the State Department, which issues those. Generally, only if foreign nationals who are here legally commit serious crimes are they are subject to detention and deportation proceedings.

Why aren’t the pandits allowed out, I asked Goldstein. “They’re not coming here to be tourists, to see New York or socialize,” was his reply. If they need something, “they tell us and we will take care of it. We have a medical facility.”

“It is a form of confinement,” he acknowledged when pressed. “It is a form of taking away their freedom, and you balance that. Maybe in America, that’s the pre-eminent issue. For the pandits, my experience is that’s not so important. They want to be with their brothers.”

That seems ironic in light of what led to the recent uprising. The program’s administrators were returning one of the men, who was popular with his peers, to India without telling them. Instead, the sheriff was asked to be there in case of a disturbance. That conveys a dismaying level of distrust.

The man was being sent back for what Goldstein called “administrative improprieties,” but he wouldn’t elaborate. John Revolinski, the administrator of the Pandit Program, says information is disbursed to pandits “purely on a need to know basis,” but both he and Goldstein have conceded they would do things differently in the future. He said the departing pandit was returned to campus and a group meeting was held, after which the man and six others were voluntarily sent back to India. More will be leaving in the coming days.

No one was charged in the incident because Jefferson County Sheriff Greg Morton said his car camera wasn’t on and he couldn’t identify the offenders. Though nothing like this has happened before, Morton said he gets calls from local farmers about pandits leaving the compound and “trying to get into people’s houses.”

“I’ve had some (farmers) tell me they’ll take care of business. I’m just afraid somebody’s going to get hurt because of misinterpretation.”

What happened March 11 has generated talk and speculation around town — and calls for greater transparency. Freddy Fonseca, a Fairfield resident and meditator, likes the Pandit Program, and believes no one is getting rich off the donations. But he decries the secrecy surrounding how people’s donated money is spent, or “why someone is being sent back or why they can’t come and go freely.”

A university professor in Fairfield, who asked not to be named, called for an independent review, saying, “It’s easy for administrators to become invested in their projects and lose sight of issues which may be obvious to outsiders.”

Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy, a donor to the Pandit Project, says he understands the need to keep pandits away from outside influences. As for pay, he said the university has a similar model for its staff, who get room, board, benefits and a stipend, but forgo more money for the larger cause. But he too wants more transparency.

The administrators allowed me to interview four mostly older pandits they selected, none of whom were involved in the uprising. All, speaking in Hindi, said they are happy to contribute to world peace, content with the living conditions, and had agreed to the wages beforehand.

It’s not the purpose of this column to question the Maharishi philosophy. The university and meditator community have done wonderful things to revitalize the community and spearhead sustainable development. To call what I saw “human trafficking” would probably also overstate the case; it doesn’t appear pandits were duped or coerced to come. But while they are presented as enlightened holy men, they are micromanaged in a compound that looks and feels unacceptably like a detention center.

I’m unswayed by arguments that their housing in India is modest. They should be housed according to American standards. Also disturbing are the paternalistic attitudes that leave them beholden to the sponsor, who holds their passports as if they’re children rather than adults. Once here, it’s natural for them to want to explore, so they should be given guidance on how to stay safe. And if they look around and figure out they’re underpaid and kept in inferior housing, well — that’s the risk the program has to take.

Bottom line: If the program continues, it needs revamping, and much greater external oversight.

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